TVA praised for nuclear safety record
It's hard to miss the irony of the Tennessee Valley Authority getting high marks from one federal regulatory agency for the safety record of its nuclear power plants at the same time another federal agency is attacking TVA for the pollution emitted by its coal-fired plants.
TVA's nuclear power generation program was a victim of the anti-nuclear hysteria that swept the country in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
Citing various safety flaws in its nuclear power plants, environmentalists and federal regulators went after TVA, basically forcing the government-owned utility to cancel plans for eight nuclear units. As a result of this abortive attempt to exploit the potential of nuclear power, TVA officials accumulated a massive debt that still plagues the agency today.
It should be noted, too, that the outcry over the supposedly lethal hazards of nuclear power generation forced TVA to continue to rely mainly on aging, pollution-belching coal-fired plants. Now environmental regulators say those plants are endangering the public's health.
It turns out that TVA runs a very safe nuclear power program. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently gave TVA's Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants top grades for safety, the Chattanooga Times/Free Press reported.
Watts Bar has operated for three years without any significant problems. Sequoyah has a similar record.
This should come as no surprise to detached observers of the nuclear power industry. The fact is, the industry has an excellent safety record in the United States, western Europe and Japan.
When nuclear power plants are properly designed and diligently regulated, they provide a relatively safe and clean source of power. Legitimate concerns remain about the disposal of nuclear wastes, but the record shows that the public fear of nuclear power that exploded after Three Mile Island was largely groundless.
Yes, the accident at Chernobyl was devastating. Even so, it's impossible to separate that calamity from the sloppiness and general disregard for public safety that characterized the old Soviet nuclear power program.
Ironically, the environmental activists who brought the nuclear power industry to a halt in the name of safety succeeded in rescuing "dirty" coal-burning power plants from obsolescence. Those plants have been branded a threat to public safety by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which says the smog they produce is causing serious health problems for people with respiratory illnesses.
Environmental groups claim that one-third of all emissions in the United States of nitrogen oxide, the key ingredient of smog, come from coal-fired plants. Coal-fired plants also produce sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain.
Environmentalists consider TVA one of the nation's worst polluters. The authority has spent more than $2.5 billion trying to control emissions from its coal-fired plants, but it still has fallen well short of EPA's high standards.
Last year EPA issued an administrative order accusing TVA of making illegal repairs to its coal plants and demanding that the utility meet stricter pollution standards. TVA may have to spend another billion or so complying with the EPA mandate.
The power industry is in a classic no-win situation. Utilities can't build nuclear power plants because of "Three Mile Island syndrome." But they can't maintain coal-fired plants, either, because they emit far too much pollution to suit environmentalists and federal regulators.
It's apparent that the nation's air would be cleaner today if nuclear power plants had replaced the old coal-burning facilities. However, don't expect environmentalists and federal bureaucrats to take the blame for smog. After all, they're virtuously devoted to trying to protect the environment and the public's health.